How To Disappoint An Audience – by Apple

Every battle is won before it is fought.

So said Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese warlord-philosopher and strategist, and Apple proved him right again yesterday.

In Tim Cook’s first public outing as CEO, Apple’s fans were led to expect the much-trumpeted iPhone 5, and they were disappointed. Instead, Apple announced a new iPhone 4S, which has many cool features and is much more powerful than the original iPhone 4, but it looks the same and it’s not a 5.

The immediate reaction was one of disappointment among fans and commentators. A poll showed 81% of respondents were disappointed. The AAPL share price dropped, at one point by up to 5%, although it later recovered, but the market was hit, and a Business Insider article was entitled “Apple’s Disappointing iPhone Kills The Entire Market Comeback”. Jay Yarow said “People were right to feel let down! They didn’t get what they expected.”

Steve Jobs is a hard act to follow by any measure, and all eyes were on Tim Cook’s performance on stage to see if he could match the master. But if his performance was competent enough, the event still disappointed, because expectations had been raised and the event had been hyped, and the substance of the message failed to match the expectation. The BBC reported that “you could sense a great wave of disappointment rolling through the Apple community”.

Now I can hear you saying that Apple never announced that they would release anything called an iPhone 5, not yesterday, not ever. True. But the media speculation was so high in recent weeks that it was almost a fait accompli, and everyone was talking about the event as “the iPhone 5 launch”. TechCrunch announced a very certain “We know the iPhone 5 is being debuted soon.” LoopInsight announced the event as “the iPhone 5 event”. And there had already been plenty of leaks about the new teardrop design of the iPhone 5 which had originally been expected in June, and so they couldn’t possibly delay it any later than October, could they?

So were the media completely wrong to lead people to believe this was going to be the big day? Perhaps. But Apple were wrong to allow it.

I’ve already blogged about how it’s important to raise expectations to a level that’s high enough to make people interested, but not so high that you can’t then meet or exceed them. Apple just got this the wrong way round. To put it crudely, people were expecting a cool new iPhone 5. They got Cards.

That news sites and influential blogs gave people false expectations is certainly Apple’s problem, because what could have been a great event with some cool announcements turned into an event which disappointed people because of what it didn’t say, so it does affect Apple’s image – even if they will still sell shedloads of phones.

It was like going to see Jurassic Park 8 and leaving the cinema disappointed because there was only one small and docile dinosaur. If that’s what you’re expecting, it doesn’t matter how great the cinematography or acting are.

So since the resulting disappointment was Apple’s problem, it should have been Apple’s responsibility to influence expectations beforehand. That’s what PR is there for.

What, then, could Apple have done before the event to set expectations to a level that was high but achievable? Plenty. Here are some ideas.

  1. The event name and invitation. Having detected that people were expecting something unrealistic, they could have set clear expectations in the invitation or even the event name. If the invitation had mentioned something like “You remember the leap forward between the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 3GS? That’s nothing compared to what we’ll be announcing on October 4th” then people would still have expected a lot, but they’d have probably expected an updated 4 series and not a 5. And if a few journalists had received that, they’d have picked up on it and relayed it, and started speculating along the right lines. Instead, on receiving the press release, sites like LoopInsight immediately called it “the iPhone 5 launch”.
  2. A strategic leak. Apple should have realised that the battle was going to be lost unless they reset expectations, so a strategic leak to an influential blog or journalist might have been enough to achieve that. “We’re not calling it an iPhone 5, but it’s still a big step-change from the iPhone 4” might have been enough. Or “The outside is the same as the iPhone 4, but what’s inside is completely new.” Would that steal some of Cook’s thunder (or Schiller’s, as it happens)? Perhaps. But it raises the question “so what’s new inside, in terms of hardware and software, and what will it do for me?” – and that’s the right kind of question for people to speculate about before the event.
  3. A teaser. Imagine a video on the Apple web site, building up to the brand-new phone, and then unveiling what looks like the iPhone 4. Then someone saying “Hold on, that’s just an iPhone 4!” And the answer could come: “It only looks like an iPhone 4. Find out what’s inside on Oct 4.” And then perhaps the new phone’s screen could open one eye invitingly. The slogan “It only looks like an iPhone 4” takes something that people will say anyway, and adds the important word “only” which then raises expectations about what’s inside.

Frankly, there are all sorts of things Apple could have done. Yes, it is in a ‘quiet period’, but if it can make such a major product announcement during a quiet period, it can also set expectations properly. Its failure to do so has rebounded on it, and has caused the first perceived failure of Tim Cook’s tenure.

It just goes to show that it’s not always the delivery that lets a presentation down: it’s often mis-setting or misunderstanding the audience’s expectations. And with all it could have done to set expectations right, Apple can’t go blaming the media. Worse, when you willingly allow so many journalists to bark up the wrong tree, they end up getting angry at being made to look like fools, and they could decide to turn on Apple, which is no longer the cool underdog that inspired cult status, and which could end up portrayed as the next big corporate villain surprisingly quickly if they are not careful.

It’s a pity, because the iPhone 4S seems pretty cool, and deserves to be judged on what it is, not criticised for what it is not. And giving away the iPhone 3GS is a market-shaking announcement. If only they’d ensured expectations were set right, perhaps people would be talking about a successful debut for Cook, not a disappointment.

Every battle is won before it is fought. Tim Cook didn’t lose this one through his performance on the stage. Basically his PR people led him into an ambush even Jobs wouldn’t have escaped unhurt.

One more thing…

Apple’s product launches are quite long. This one had a lot of padding. The more stuff you announce at the same time, the lower the overall impact. If Jobs got one thing wrong in his most recent launches, this was it. One hour is enough, half an hour is better. Apple has absolutely no business giving air-time at an iPhone launch to an underwhelming app like Cards, or a few new skins for an iPod Nano. They can launch those with one of their regular emails.

BBC News Online’s Rory Cellan-Jones called it “an extremely long and ponderous event“. And many of Jobs’ events fell into that same trap.

When he launched the iPad2, he had three key messages. It’s lighter, it’s thinner, and it’s faster. That was all it needed – but it went on a long time. If Apple’s agenda yesterday had been to get three key messages across, it would have been these:

  • Here’s a fantastic new iPhone 4S with Siri and iOS5
  • We’re giving the iPhone 3GS away for free
  • iCloud is launching next week (I was wondering when it would finally launch, so it’s good to mention it)

And quite frankly, they should not have felt the need to add any more subjects to the agenda. I’d allow them a brief intro (a brief one) talking about some of their recent successes. But that’s all.

Lessons for presenters

  1. Delivery isn’t everything. Yes, it’s important, but your message is just as important as the way you deliver it.
  2. Understand your audience and their expectations.
  3. Set (or reset) expectations to a level where you can meet or exceed them. If you can’t or won’t do that, it will become your problem, so make it your responsibility.
  4. Choose 1-3 key messages and work to communicate them memorably. Cut out anything that doesn’t help deliver those key messages.
  5. Be brief, as FDR would have said.

10 Responses to How To Disappoint An Audience – by Apple

  1. Jérôme says:

    No strategic leak from Apple ?
    Well, let me see…
    Oh, that’s right, they didn’t explicitly mentioned an iPhone 4S in the iTunes beta.
    Yes, and they didn’t say a word about an iPhone 4S in their own inventory either.
    Yet despite all this, the medias kept going crazy about an iPhone 5 (and barely mentioned the 4S), like they always do (remember the iPad 2 with a retina display?)

    So should Apple have simply given away the content of the keynote so as not to disappoint all the gullible people who can’t tell the difference between facts and rumors?
    Or should news outlets do their job, which is reporting facts and not wild rumors ? And should people be properly educated in their media consumption so that they can separate the wheat from the chaff when reading “news”.

    As a PS, do you really think that Apple shouldn’t have given any airtime to that small, meaningless app, Card… which will just allow them to start eating into a 31 billion dollars market?

    • Phil Waknell says:

      There’s a difference between giving away the 4S, and allowing people to expect a 5. Before the event, TechCrunch was expecting both the 4S and the 5. And to be fair to them, they had the 4S first in their rumour list, not the 5.

      So if Apple thought that leaking the 4S would stop people expecting a 5, they were wrong. 81% of disappointed people in that Business Insider poll is a pretty damning statistic, and I am sure it is much worse than it would have been for previous Apple keynotes which mostly garnered very positive reviews. I’ve looked hard and found no article anywhere that says yesterday’s event rocked – but lots that say it disappointed.

      I’m like many other people who consider themselves educated readers – I look at multiple sources before making up my mind. But when those multiple sources are stating as fact that the 5 is going to be released at this event, and even calling it the iPhone 5 event, I tend to accept that it is likely to be true. The media have guessed wrong in the past (like the iPad 2 retina screen which I was also expecting) but generally they’ve presented such speculation as ‘likely’, not as fact (example here). But they’ve never all got it quite as wrong as they did this time, stating it as fact and even naming the event after a product which didn’t show up at all.

      I don’t recall suggesting Apple should give away the subject of their keynote. Simply guiding expectations and creating the right kind of mystery would be productive and sensible. Very little they could announce would anyway be a huge surprise given the wide range of media speculation on what they might do. So while it’s nice if they can produce a pleasant surprise, it’s more important to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

      If you take the point of view that the news and quasi-news outlets should do their job properly, and people shouldn’t just believe them even when they’re all saying the same thing, then you’ll find it very unfair that most people are disappointed. Fair or not, it’s a fact, and anything negative hurts Apple’s image. News outlets and bloggers do get it wrong sometimes, most people do believe what they read when it’s presented as fact (and even sometimes as rumour), people do get disappointed when their expectations aren’t met, and those people do make purchase decisions based on their emotions. Any company just has to live with that, and do everything it can to ensure people have positive emotions about its brand and products. In this case, Apple didn’t. The product looks fine but its launch was allowed to be overshadowed by the groaning sound of expectations not being met, and they could have avoided that.

      I’m sceptical about Cards. I had a friend who created a startup a few years back which would do exactly that. It didn’t get very far. And given those high prices, I am not sure it’s going to be huge. I hope I’m wrong. But my view is this: either it’s a little announcement, in which case it shouldn’t be there as padding to distract attention from the main announcements; or it’s a big announcement, in which case it deserves more than just a cameo role at a product launch. Either way, yesterday wasn’t the right occasion in my view.

  2. Phil, you and I agree on a lot of things regarding presentations, but I can’t agree with you on this one. Apple can’t control the rumors that media outlets start. You should be pissed at the rumor sites for being overly confident without substantial evidence. Freedom of the press doesn’t transfer responsibility on the subject of the text – otherwise there would be no laws for libel and slander. Apple never promised anything!

    The suggestions you offer are way out of Apple’s modus operandi. They don’t have 2 sentences of qualifiers for their media announcements. They don’t release teasers. There’s speculation that they may strategically leak info, but not confirmed.

    Back to the presentation, I do agree that the time was full of fluff and drawn out too long. They needed 45 minutes max to share the important messages.

    • Phil Waknell says:

      The media was indeed at fault for jumping to conclusions, but the fact that they were all doing it – not just blogs but respected institutions like the BBC – indicates they all had good reason to expect an iPhone 5.

      Nobody can blame Apple for promising a launch that didn’t happen. But that doesn’t stop people being disappointed. It’s not Apple’s fault, but it is their image that takes the hit, so it is their problem, and therefore they should take responsibility for ensuring when Cook and Schiller take the stage, they are not set up for a fall. And by allowing their media followers to look like fools, they’re likely to put their backs up – and that’s never a good strategy. While fans will quickly get over their disappointment and realise the 4S is a fine new phone, and while investors will realise (and are realising) that sales will still be good despite initial concerns, I fear the longer-lasting outcome might be increased media hostility to Apple.

      Personally I think that if their modus operandi doesn’t stretch to common sense, it needs to stretch some more. But that’s just my opinion.

      • Jérôme says:

        “– not just blogs but respected institutions like the BBC –”
        Well, when “respected institutions” start reporting rumors without doing any efforts to double-check them first, one can wonder how long they will keep their “respected” status.
        But I guess it would be a post for PhilMedia 😉

  3. OK, Phil. I’ll tell you what I think.

    Apple does not do PR as most company do. It’s outside the realm of standard PR world.

    Indeed : what would you call a PR fiasco is, for Apple, a small issue. They did say “Let’s talk iPhone” (or, indeed, “Let’s talk, iPhone !”) and they just did what they said. Media complain ? Yup. As they complained for antennagate,

    You know what the problem is ?

    They should have called the iPhone 4… iPhone 5.

    – New A5 Processor
    – New Graphic processor
    – New incredibly good camera
    – Powered by iOS 5
    – Revolutionnary Voice Control

    How good of a package it is 🙂

    I will agree though that these conferences are too long. One hour should be the max if they launch a single product. Especially, the usual “we’re the best” report should be much shorter.

    But we can’t blame Apple for “raising expectations too high”, while they said *nothing*. Don’t shoot the messenger… or, in this case, well, YES, shoot the messenger :-D, I mean, media which report their fantasies as “we-are-sure-it’s-info” rumors.

    There are other problems with the iPhone 4S. I will come back on these on my blog soon 😉

    • Phil Waknell says:

      The strongest form of communication is what you don’t say. I really don’t see how Apple’s PR department can be absolved of any responsibility for the widespread reports of disappointment simply because they said nothing. It’s precisely because they persisted in saying nothing, despite the hype getting out of control and reaching a point where Cook could not win, that people got disappointed. The art of PR is not staying silent when it would be better to say something. The art of PR is manipulating the media to say what you want them to say, and not letting them say exactly what you don’t want.

      They aren’t guilty of raising expectations too high – they are guilty of allowing expectations to be raised and doing nothing to stop it (unless you count a little “1” on the phone icon on the invitation, which was promptly misinterpreted to mean that they would only launch the iPhone 5 and not launch a low-priced iPhone 4 series as well). And they are the only victims of that. The media got it wrong, Apple failed to influence them and paid the price, and I believe did so unnecessarily.

      They could have called it the iPhone 5, but nobody would have believed that was the original intention since everyone saw the leaked teardrop-shaped prototypes. Otherwise, yes it could have worked. Personally I think their product strategy is pretty good on this, and the product looks good. Pity it got overshadowed by what wasn’t said.

      I look forward to reading about the product problems you mentioned…

      • Jérôme says:

        “everyone saw the leaked teardrop-shaped prototypes”

        What makes you so sure these are “leaked prototypes” ?
        As far as we know, these were just fantasies born in the wildest dreams of some fanboys out there.
        We didn’t see any real prototypes, just cases from China (and it’s not the first time Chinese manufacturers got it wrong on the next new design of an iProduct) and mockups done by some gifted designer with obviously way too much time on their hands.

        Once again, the problem is with people mistaking rumors for facts…

      • Phil Waknell says:

        Have to agree with you on that. Unfortunately it’s human nature to be gullible.

        “We believe what we see, and then we believe our interpretation of it. We don’t even know that we’re making an interpretation. We take it as reality.” – Robert Anton Wilson.

        So for companies like Apple, the appropriate action is not to complain that people shouldn’t be so gullible – it’s to accept that’s the way people are, including the media who are often gullible people too, and set a PR strategy which deals with it.

      • Phil Waknell says:

        It’s probably appropriate to add a short comment regarding the sad passing of Steve Jobs, and the fact the entire Apple exec team almost certainly knew he was not long for this world when they bravely took the stage.

        Does it change anything in my assessment of their PR? Actually, no. I wasn’t at all hard on the execs’ performance at the conference, although I could have said something. I’m glad I didn’t. In the circumstances, they all did extremely well.

        The errors I pointed out happened well before the conference: bad idea to allow the media to set wildly wrong expectations, and bad decision to dilute the announcement of a fantastic phone with 40 minutes of padding about Nano skins and Cards. Knowledge of Jobs’ impending passing would have excused poor delivery, but getting these two right would have made for a more positive event and a better sign-off for the great man.

        My hope is that Steve was neither watching nor following the news, but instead was appreciating his last hours with his family. He deserved to die a happy man. He changed the world, and inspired others to do the same. It’s not just for Tim Cook to keep his spirit alive: it’s for all of us.

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